Design Thinking New approaches to innovate libraries

Dokk1 Library in Århus
Dokk1 Library in Århus | RhinoMind | CC BY-SA 4.0

Julia Bergmann of the Library Avengers, an EU think tank, has already brought some big changes to German libraries through the creative approach of so-called Design Thinking. We talked to her about the possibilities and limitations of Design Thinking for libraries.

Ms Bergmann, you work in innovation management and have just translated material from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about Design Thinking for libraries from English into German. What appeals to you about this approach?

It is patron-centred, interdisciplinary and pragmatic. This highly user-oriented approach involves various disciplines and departments in the process, thereby preventing insular thinking and “armchair innovation". The ideas are inspired by users’ needs, which gives rise to new approaches, new ideas and, ideally, innovations. In our case it means we’re receiving new stimuli and these “we’ll-meet-Tuesday-at-nine-and-have-an-idea” meetings are obsolete. Not only that: I think a pragmatic approach to user dialogue about nascent ideas and feedback is particularly well suited to the library.

A great many international companies and organizations of all sizes are now using the Design Thinking method for projects, portfolios and development. What do you feel are the opportunities and potential of Design Thinking for information and library services?

Digitisation has caused a sea change in our media landscape, society and the way information and media are accessed and used. Libraries and information providers need to reorient themselves in this environment, which means questioning existing assumptions about “what makes the user tick”. This is why I consider it sensible and expedient to adopt an innovation approach that’s based on the requirements and everyday reality of the users.

Do you know of any libraries that have already successfully implemented Design Thinking in Germany or elsewhere in the world?

For my part, I got my inspiration from the Chicago Public Library and the DOKK 1 in Aarhus, which jointly put together the handouts that I translated into German, and which motivated me to explore this method. In Germany I’m in charge of the Würzburg municipal library, the first to adopt this approach to a project. The Cologne municipal library has now taken up this approach to innovation development too.

What do you see as the limitations of Design Thinking, where do you see difficulties?

On the one hand, this methodology is incredible flexible and universally applicable, not tailored to a specific industry the way other approaches are. It can be used in any field, whether the economy, education or healthcare – so it offers plenty of opportunities and possibilities. On the other hand, however, it mustn’t be misunderstood: Design Thinking is an approach to developing ideas and, ideally, innovations, it’s not project management. The actual project management comes after the idea.

What would you like to see for the future of Germany’s information and library system?

Design Thinking is a largely trial and error-based approach. In other words, I try something out with a rapid and pragmatic method of innovation by testing extensively and getting feedback. This is the why we badly need a culture that is much more accepting of error. There ought to be something like the “flop of the year” as a separate “session” at the German librarians’ conference, where everyone can find out what we’ve learned from the “flop” and say, “Ok, the library has already tried that and it didn’t work for such-and-such reasons, well then let’s try going about it differently for a change.” These mistakes are still all too often hushed up, which doesn’t exactly help us learn from them, so there’s room for improvement here.

Julia Bergmann studied library and information management in Hamburg and worked on a knowledge management project for the Bertelsmann Foundation. She has been coaching and consulting freelance since 2007 in Germany and abroad. She also served as president of the Verein Zukunftswerkstatt Kultur- und Wissensvermittlung e.V. (“Associative Workshop on the Future of Cultural Mediation and Knowledge Dissemination”) in Bremen from 2009 to 2016 and has been a member of the EU think tank Library Avengers since 2014.

Working together with the Chicago Public Library and Århus Public Libraries in Denmark on a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the design and innovation agency IDEO in 2013/14 developed a toolkit for the use of “Design Thinking” in libraries. The object is to help librarians use “Design Thinking” to develop new ideas for their patrons.